In advance of his UK tour this week, acclaimed writer and painter Mahi Binebine treats PEN Atlas readers to a short story about young people in Morocco and the ‘art’ of sleeping. Mahi will visit Oxford and London this week to discuss his new book, Horses of God, winner of an English PEN award.
Translated from the French by Lulu Norman
“You want to leave? But why?”
Morad inspected his babouches and replied:
“Because I can’t see my city any more.”
“The foreigners have stolen my eyes.”
Then he stared at me as if to show that his gaze really was empty. Without a glimmer of hope. Devoid of all ambition. They were disillusioned, old eyes; any plan or prospect had been washed away.
The scene took place one night in a café opposite the French Consulate. Morad was waiting for his usual time to go and queue in front of the studded door. This was his job: every evening, he’d arrive at the elegant building and spend the night there; the next day, he’d sell his place in line to people applying for visas. The price varied, depending on the length of the queue and the vagaries of the weather.
“How did foreigners manage to steal your eyes?”
“Ever since we’ve had satellite dishes on our roofs, we have eyes only for the other world. The medina looks like a ruin to us now.”
“What they show you on TV isn’t necessarily the truth. I’ve lived in Paris for twenty years and, you see, I’m back.”
“So what makes you think you can give me advice? You left, didn’t you? If I were you, I wouldn’t have come back.”
A smile played over Morad’s regular, slightly African features.
“Why do you queue for other people?”
“It’s my livelihood.”
“Yes, but you could queue for yourself.”
“I’ve been refused a visa three times. I’ve given up. In any case I’ve found a job. I sell people info on how to get papers sorted and useful contacts for fake IDs… You see, I’ve got used to the satellite dish, and it does me good, living on the edge of a mirage.”
“That must be so frustrating!”
“Not at all. During the day, I’m in Europe or America… and at night I continue my travels in my dreams. Do you know, I can sleep standing up?”
“Yes, or even while I walk. Sleeping is one of this country’s great arts. From the cradle on, a kind of lethargy is instilled in us which, once we’re adults, gives us a phenomenal talent for sleeping.”
Seeing me frown, Morad went on more calmly:
“Foreigners think we’re awake but it’s a trick. Most people are numbed by a rare inertia. As if they’re detached from the world.”
“Hang on,” I said, “I’m no fool. I was born here. I may have spent twenty years away but I’m still Moroccan.”
“Twenty years! My God! And why did you come back?”
“To put the pieces back together…”
After a pause, he said:
“The moment you sat down at my table, I could tell you were mad. Whatever you do, don’t repeat what you’ve just told me: you might get lynched.”
“For what crime?” I exclaimed.
“The young people you see around you dream of only one thing: storming the Consulate. They couldn’t imagine such a ridiculous waste.”
Morad stared at me curiously.
“Now that you’re here – and no one forced you to be – you’re going to have to relearn how to sleep. First, you need a fine pair of babouches so you’re not tempted to walk too fast. And a thick, warm djellaba like mine. Look how snug it is! My mother wove it with her own hands. In this thing, sleep can erupt any time, anywhere! It’s vital to adapt yourself to the pace of the country. The Swiss invented the watch, but we, we have time. And above all, go gently. A man in a hurry is already dead. We’ve managed to appease death. We’ve tamed it, woven its tendrils into the apathy of our lives. We consume it in small doses. You see, this is an immense cemetery, where each man carries his own tomb…we’re proper tortoises.”
While Morad was speaking (or was it me daydreaming?) I glimpsed something like a light in his eyes. And then nothing.
I was angry with myself for dozing off in the café. As I opened my eyes, I spotted his purple djellaba in the distance; you could have sworn there was no one inside it. But there was no doubt it was his, leaning against the studded door of the French Consulate. Behind him stretched a long line of petitioners for paradise; or for hell, depending.
About the Author
Mahi Binebine was born in Marrakech in 1959. He studied in Paris and taught mathematics, until he became recognised first as a painter, then as a novelist. Between 1994 – 1999 he lived in New York, when his paintings began to be acquired by the Guggenheim Museum. He now lives in Marrakech with his family.
About the Translator
Lulu Norman lives in London. Working from French and Spanish, she has translated Ricardo Arrieta, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Albert Cossery, Mahmoud Darwish, and Serge Gainsbourg, and written for the Guardian, the Independent, and the London Review of Books. Her translation of Mahi Binebine’s Welcome to Paradise was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004. She also works as a freelance editor and is an editorial assistant at Banipal, the journal of modern Arab literature.
You can see Mahi Binebine at an event curated by Oxford Student PEN on Tuesday 23 April, at a film screening and Q&A with Omar Kholeif at the Institut Français on Wednesday 24 April, and in conversation with Ros Schwartz at the Royal African Society on Thursday 25 April.
You can read more about Mahi and his UK visit on the Arablit blog. You can also find out more about the author and artist on his personal website.